Around here the surest sign of spring is not the groundhog but rather the birthday of an old cowboy artist named Charlie Russell who created a archetype while meaning only to live in the West. The Great Falls Ad Club decided to organize a celebratory art auction on the weekend closest to his birthday every year and that proved to be a magnet for a number of intersecting forces. In the immediately past years the forces have collided and reconfigured. Now there is an auction, but the Ad Club has nothing to do with it, while the “shadow” auction called “March in Montana” continues unchanged. You can peruse the offerings of both online: http://cmrussell.org/the-russell and
is also continuing his simultaneous show (Jay Contway & Friends) but doesn’t put a catalog online.
Lots of people speculate about what’s happening, especially behind the scenes where the CM Russell Museum has just united their two Boards of Directors, one local and one national. All the drama of horse rustling and backroom gambling deals! Of course, buying art IS gambling, esp. at an auction. Bob Scriver has been completely eliminated from the remuda of the Russell. Previous directors would have liked to get his little skulls off the door pulls and even dispense with the big portrait of the artist that Scriver made. He afflicted them while alive and bugs them even more now that he’s dead. I try to help.
There are Scriver bronzes in the “March in Montana” auction, the smaller ceramic-shell castings he made late in life to sell through entrepreneurs who were fond of series so as to encourage collecting the whole bunch. These pieces are # 322, a bucking horse at rodeo; #223, a standing mountain man; #324, a trapper on showshoes; #325, a prospector panning; #594, a mountain man on horseback; #617, a standing elk. This last might be the one sold to help acquire the painting of an elk that Charlie made for the Elks Club so it would stay in Montana. #489, an Indian woman on a horse with a travois, children, and two dogs, is identified as a Joe Beeler bronze but I think it’s actually a Scriver. As the staff gets younger and more separated from on-the-ground Western life, they make more mistakes.
Of the works by people I knew and liked who were connected to Bob Scriver, there were fewer than usual works, but some persist. Ned Jacob http://www.nedjacob.com/ has a nice little sketch (#333) of an Indian head with a bandanna. Paul Dyck is represented by two remarkable paintings: #342, a circle of lodges (tipis) and #342, some kind of ceremonial bird. He is an abstract painter using classical techniques, very haunting. If I had money to spend, I might buy #415 which is a Russell Chatham stone lithograph, also haunting.
Ned Jacob is my age, but Russell Chatham was born on the very same day. We are an age cohort and over seventy now. When I came to Browning we were the younglings. Ace Powell, alcoholic and garrulous, energized us with his predictions of the future and he is well represented in the March in Montana auction because Van Kirke Nelson took him -- well, under his wing would be the nice way to put it -- and accumulated a LOT of his work. But there really are not a lot of Montana homegrown artists that I recognize.
There are two categories of objects that should be thoroughly researched before bidding. One is the Native American artifacts which are controversial in terms of politics and very often were stolen at some point between their creation and acquisition. In addition, many artifakes are out there and some of them are so well-done that they are nearly undetectable as phony. Of course, if they’re that good, why worry? Why not just accept them?
The concept of pedigree is not well-known but it is relevant to artifacts and also to bronzes. With modern methods and materials, it is probably easier to make an undetectable but unauthorized phony bronze casting than to make a solidly-beaded vest. In fact, some of the glamorous ceremonial shirts that occasionally come through auctions sell for thousands, more than many bronzes. Originally, back in the days of Rodin and the perfecting of lost wax casting the process was so exacting and risky that Bob and I nearly killed ourselves and our crew in the Sixties learning how to do it. Now you can just buy a low-risk kit for ceramic shell casting. There’s a definite difference in the quality, but most people can’t detect it.
Western art is an interesting category because it combines high, sophisticated works attached to high income crowds in erudite circles, very curated and controlled, with wild-ass popular creations done from the heart for personal satisfaction. Then there are the cross-overs, which would be Charlie Russell from a relatively high-toned bourgeois family in the mid-west who barely managed to catch the tail of the big open range life. In fact, he missed the bison and the pre-rez Indians. He did his best for the Metis/Cree-Chippewa people who had no rez and often visited the reservations. Some of his drawings are sharp social criticism.
Now it begins to be realized that he was considerably more sophisticated in technique than people think. He spent time in New York City, learning, and artists from back east came to visit, bringing their advice and techniques with them. The same happened with Bob Scriver. So now there are two directions of influence traveling between the “grassroots” spontaneous art and the sophisticated circles. Maybe it’s time for another book that isn’t focused on how much money can be made.
In the meantime interested parties should at least educate their eyes on the catalogues of auctions and, if possible, look carefully at the original works with as much coaching as they can glean from publications or from websites like www.askart.com which manages an index of artists and information about them.
For a reality check, here’s a blog about the planetary art world: